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Building Homes and Relationships by Olivia Neslusan

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As I sit on an old wooden bench, warm Mexican sun beating down on my hair, and the laugher of young boys playing on the soccer field in the distance, I cannot fathom the fact that my time here at the ranch is winding down. This summer has gone by in the blink of an eye, but contrastingly, it feels like I have been here forever. Looking back at this time last year, I was an eager group member dreaming about being accepted into this internship position. One week simply just wasn’t enough for me, and I couldn't wait to apply and spend three months here at this incredible ranch.

I had so many expectations of what I thought this summer would be like based on my past experiences here and what I heard from past interns, but quickly I learned that it is so important when doing mission work similar to this, to have no expectations and have an open mind. The summer was full of laughter and tears, and certainly was exhausting at times. Building a new home every week and having the energy to greet each new team like it was your first is something that is both beautiful and challenging. But more than the build, this place and this summer for me has been about building relationships.

Theodora and I arrived two weeks later than the rest of the young adult interns that would dedicate their summer to leading home building. In my journal on the first day of arrival I wrote about how I was nervous that close relationships and friendships had already formed, and perhaps we wouldn't get to know the other 17 interns as well. This trivial worry quickly faded within the first couple days. It is so beautiful and easy to connect with other young Orthodox Christians. Growing up in the faith and sharing the same values is something that allows us to truly connect on a deeper level, and I know that these will be people I stay in contact with long after this summer is over.

Connecting with the 19 boys here at the orphanage, though, has been by far the most rewarding part of this experience. Boys ranging in age from eight to eighteen live on this ranch, and each of them have their own vibrant and inspiring personalities and stories. Between group activities and home builds, we get the opportunity to spend as much time as we please with them. Despite their backgrounds of neglect, these boys are some of the most loving people I have ever met. They are eager to learn more about you, make you laugh, and if you are lucky, they sometimes share their personal stories about their past.

This summer the ranch was blessed with three new little boys ranging from eight to ten years old. Immediately after arriving here in this new home, the boys were always eager to participate in church and had so many questions about the faith. It was truly something special to see how they transitioned with such grace. It is a challenge, however, especially with these three new little boys, to connect with them without getting too close and allowing them to get too attached. It is so obvious that they need love from the way they run up to almost any female who they are familiar with and cling to them calling each one “Mama.” Although this can be tough at times, it is comforting to know that the family here at the ranch will indeed give them the love and permanency they so desperately need and want.

That is what is so special about this place.

It is a community where everyone is a part of the family that makes up St. Innocent Orphanage and Project Mexico. It is going to be bittersweet to leave this country and its people, but I leave knowing that this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and also knowing that it was not really me who made it, but rather God who called me to be here.